LOS ANGELES — The deadline came and went on Monday without a long-term extension between the Los Angeles Rams and primary cornerback Trumaine Johnson, a development that had been expected for quite some time.
In the end, there probably wasn’t enough incentive on either side.
Johnson, the first cornerback to be tagged a second straight year since Charles Woodson in 2005, is sitting pretty, set to make $16.74 million in 2017, more than any other cornerback in the NFL. With that being the case, it would’ve been hard for Johnson to settle for a long-term deal that wasn’t on par with the highest-paid players at his position. So locking him up might have required giving Johnson a five-year contract similar to that of Desmond Trufant ($68.75 million with nearly $42 million guaranteed), A.J. Bouye ($67.5 million with $26 million guaranteed) or Stephon Gilmore ($65 million with $40 million guaranteed). Or, at least, something in that neighborhood.
That probably was too steep for the Rams, for three key reasons:
1. Johnson hasn’t proven to be an elite corner just yet. He racked up 13 interceptions from 2013 to ’15, tied for fourth-most in the NFL during that time. But that was mainly as the No. 2 guy to Janoris Jenkins. Johnson’s interceptions dropped to one last year, his first season as the primary corner, and Pro Football Focus graded him 25th among the 109 at his position.
2. The switch to a new defensive coordinator, Wade Phillips, who requires a lot of man coverage from his corners, created uncertainty about Johnson’s long-term contributions. Perhaps it wasn’t as big a factor as it was sold throughout the offseason, but it created some doubt for an extension that probably didn’t have much chance of getting done in the first place.
3. The Rams are focused on other contracts. They want to get something done with Aaron Donald, who is two years away from free agency but skipped organized team activities because he wants a new deal. They also are zeroing in on two other upcoming free agents: inside linebacker Alec Ogletree and defensive back Lamarcus Joyner. The Rams are set up to have about $39 million in salary cap space for 2018, which ranks eighth in the NFL. But they have a lot of lingering free agents, especially on defense.
The fault, really, lies in letting it get to this point.
It goes back to last offseason, when the Rams chose to give Johnson the franchise tag, then watched Jenkins and free safety Rodney McLeod depart via free agency. That was a major blow to the depth in the Rams’ secondary, and it created a scenario where the Rams had no choice but to slap Johnson with the franchise tag all over again. Throughout the offseason, from the scouting combine to the final days of the offseason program, general manager Les Snead pointed to the midsummer deadline to negotiate with franchise players and stated that the organization would first like to see if Johnson is a fit for Phillips’ system.
Johnson expressed zero doubts.
“I’m a big corner,” he said. “I can play man, I can play off, I can play zone, I can play waterboy. I can play anything y’all want to play, man.”
Phillips was asked recently if he felt Johnson fit into his system. Perhaps conscious of the sensitivity of the topic, he spoke around it, saying, “Trumaine has done everything we’ve asked him to do so far, so I don’t have any problem with what he’s done.”
Rookie head coach Sean McVay was asked the same thing and responded by saying, “I think he fits in any system. You’re talking about a big corner who can run, he’s physical, he can tackle, and he has great ball skills.”
ESPN’s Adam Schefter brought up an interesting point while on NFL Live earlier on Monday: Based on Schefter’s report earlier this offseason, Johnson could have signed a long-term deal with the New Orleans Saints but chose to stay in L.A. The Saints were set to send the Rams a 2017 draft pick that was believed to be in the second round, but Johnson was unwilling to sign a long-term deal, which might have blown up the whole thing.
The Rams since have signed Kayvon Webster, who looks like the favorite to be the No. 2 corner, and Nickell Robey-Coleman, a standout slot corner. They also used a third-round pick on Boston College safety John Johnson, injecting themselves with some much-needed depth in their secondary.
Trumaine Johnson nonetheless says he wants to stay, for as long as the Rams will have him.
“I like it here; I like the defense,” Johnson said in late May. “I’m trying to pick Wade Phillips’ brain every day. He’s won a Super Bowl, he’s been to the playoffs. You’re talking about a Hall of Fame coach.”